We see dogs all around us, but how do you know whether a dog you see out in public is a service dog or just a pet? Most service dogs will be wearing some sort of vest. When you see one of these on a dog or a dog out with their handler who has a disability, it means they are working. Even if the dog is sitting or lying down they are still on the job and need to be responsive to their handler. Distracting the dog with food, toys, or by petting them can even be dangerous for their handler who depends on them to be ready and fully focused on them.
This isn't to say that you should ignore a service dog team, you can talk to them just like anyone else. In fact, many people will welcome it. Here are a few things to remember when interacting with a person who has a service dog.
1. Speak to the person first.
We've all done it. We see an adorable dog walking down the side walk and immediately our baby talk voice comes out and we're talking to the dog, even before we say "hello" to the person walking beside them. While it can be tempting to go straight for those cute puppy dog eyes, mind your manners and remember to talk to the person first.
2. Do not touch the service dog without asking for, and receiving, permission.
This is another easy one to forget. You may be talking to the handler or walking near them and naturally reach out to pet the dog. While this can seem harmless, it's important to remember that these dogs are on the clock when they are out with their handlers. They have an important job to do and may be distracted by your affection. It's absolutely okay to ask permission to pet their dog, but it's also important to remember that if they say no, they have a good reason for it.
3. Do not offer food to the service dog.
There are a couple of good reasons for this. First, you cannot know if that dog has a special diet and should not eat certain foods. Whatever you offer them could accidentally make them sick. And second, like we said before, this dog is working. If you were working and someone brought in cake, you'd probably be pretty distracted too. It is essential for the service dog to remain fully focused on their handler.
4. Do not ask personal questions about the handler's disability or otherwise intrude on his or her privacy.
It is easy to become curious and want to understand more about how this service dog helps their handler, but they have a right to privacy just like you do. Many people are open about sharing what their service dog does for them, but if they do not offer that information, be polite and don't intrude on their privacy.
5. Ask before providing help to a service dog team.
If you see a service dog team out in public and you thing they need help, be sure to ask before you do anything. Jumping into action can create confusion for the dog and the handler and may end up creating more chaos than help. And remember to respect what they handler says if they say they do not need your assistance. Even if you don't see it, there's a good reason for what they're doing.